Digital History

Industrialization and the Working Class

Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor Previous Next
Digital History ID 3193



The labor movement gained strength in the 1850s in such crafts as typographers, molders, and carpenters. Fixed standards of apprenticeship and of wages, hours, and working conditions were drafted. Although such agreements often broke down in periods of depression, a strong nucleus of craft unions had developed by the 1880s so that a central federation emerged. This was the American Federation of Labor.

Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) was the first president of the American Federation of Labor, the first enduring national labor union. He served as president from 1886 until his death in 1924, except for a single year, 1895. Born in London, he immigrated to the United States at the age of 13, and worked as a cigar-maker. He became the leader of the cigar-makers' union, and transformed it into one of the country's strongest unions.

Gompers believed that labor had the most to gain by organizing skilled craft workers, rather than attempting to organize all workers in an industry. He refused to form an alliance with the Knights of Labor. "Talk of harmony with the Knights of Labor," he said, "is bosh. They are just as great enemies of trade unions as any employer can be."

Gompers repudiated socialism and advocated a pragmatic "pure and simple" unionism that emphasized agreements with employees--which would spell out for a stipulated period the wages, hours of work, and the procedures for handling grievances. Gompers proposed that agreements contain clauses stipulating that employers hire only union members (the closed shop) and that any employee should be required to pay union dues. Employers advocated the open shop, which could employ non-union members.

During the 1880s and 1890s, unions sought to secure and retain a foothold in such major industries as railways, steel, mining, and construction. It was in the building trades where the craft principle was most dominant that the American Federation of Labor developed its largest membership. Miners merged their crafts into the United Mine Workers of America, an industrial union that admitted to membership of those working in and about a mine, whether skilled or unskilled.

In 1892, the AFL's affiliate in the steel industry, struck in protest against wage cuts. Following the bitter Homestead strike, the steel industry adopted an open shop policy. Craft unions were able to secure collective bargains on railroads, but when some workers a union of all rail workers, their effort collapsed in the Pullman boycott of 1894.

But some efforts at unionization proved more successful, including efforts in organizing workers in immigrant sweatshops. The International Ladies' Garment Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers demonstrated that the new immigrants could be effectively organized.

As trade unionism gained ground before World War I, employers in mines and factories established "company unions," to handle grievances and provide certain welfare benefits. The most notable company union was in the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.

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